PASADENA, CA – When Oregon and Wisconsin met in the Rose Bowl eight years ago, two brilliant offenses put on a 45-38 thriller on one of the most exciting afternoons in this venerable bowl game's history.
The Ducks' rematch with the Badgers on Wednesday could have similar offensive fireworks, given the ample talent on both rosters. Yet nobody will be surprised if the latest meeting between these perennial powers is decided by two defenses that rank among the nation's best.
No matter how it goes down in the 106th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All, Oregon (11-2) and Wisconsin (10-3) are grateful to finish seasons that fell just short of their loftiest goals with the ultimate consolation prize for any player in the Pac-12 or the Big Ten.
“For our West Coast players, this has been their dream, always,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “They can tell you about all the games in the past, the players that have shined in a big-time way. They can tell you about the tough games, the close games, and they're learning about the pageantry that surrounds it, and the incredible events that go with it. They've been watching this for a long, long time. Since they've been knee-high and playing little league football, this has been a goal for them. And now it's a reality.”
Many of the current players on both teams have fond memories of watching that 2012 Rose Bowl matchup between their future schools. Russell Wilson and Montee Ball led the Badgers to 508 yards and took a lead into the fourth quarter, but the Ducks rallied and won with 621 yards from a stacked roster built around LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas.
Back then, Ducks coach Chip Kelly's inventive offensive philosophies contrasted sharply with the Badgers' old-school mindset. The Ducks have successfully changed their style since, with Cristobal's staff dialing back the uniqueness and stressing offensive line brawn.
“They're a lot more physical than I thought they'd be,” Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun said. “I think in the past they've tended to be more speed, and beat you on the edge and outrun you. But I think they're a hard-nosed football team, and I really wasn't expecting that.”
The Badgers' overall philosophy hasn't changed much at all, and it's still working just fine.
Wisconsin made three straight losing appearances in the Rose Bowl from 2011-13, but the Badgers have won their last five consecutive bowl games, including four in a row under coach Paul Chryst.
Both schools landed in Pasadena for the fourth time apiece in the last 11 years after they fell just short of a College Football Playoff slot. Oregon is the only Power Five conference champion that didn't make the playoff field, while Wisconsin lost the Big Ten title game to Ohio State.
As usual, nobody is publicly lamenting a lost opportunity amid the splendors of Pasadena.
“We have a chance to etch our place in history with our program by becoming Rose Bowl champions,” said Wisconsin star Jonathan Taylor, who just won his second Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. “That's something we talked about ever since we figured out we were coming to the Rose Bowl.”
Here are more things to watch on another beautiful New Year's Day in Arroyo Seco:
Two elite running offenses are facing two of the nation's best rushing defenses. Taylor is likely closing out his prolific three-year career at the stadium where the likes of Ron Dayne and Ball have run wild for Wisconsin, while C.J. Verdell and freshman Travis Dye have been consistently effective all season for Oregon.
Justin Herbert will head to the NFL after he closes out his four-year career as Oregon's starting quarterback with his first Rose Bowl. His steady leadership has grown throughout his tenure at his hometown school, and the Ducks know they can count on him in a close game.
“He’s always been in my book one of my ultimate teammates because he’s just a players' guy, like he’s just a team guy,” said Oregon receiver Juwan Johnson, who is playing in his second Rose Bowl after transferring from Penn State. "You see he doesn’t sit down on the sideline because he’s always up cheering those guys on. Whatever the team wants, whatever the team needs, that’s what he does.”
Chryst has never been a head coach in the Rose Bowl, but he was Wisconsin's offensive coordinator when they reached the 2011 game. He is among the few current Badgers with experience in the Granddaddy, but he doesn't think it's a factor.
“I have appreciated the way the guys have prepared, but it hasn't been hard,” Chryst said. “When you get to prepare for this game, against a team like Oregon, I'm not saying the game's going to be easy, but the preparation and the motivation, that's not a challenge.”
Cristobal confirmed Tuesday that receiver Mycah Pittman is healthy and will play in the Rose Bowl. Pittman broke his arm against Arizona on Nov. 16, but practiced without restrictions in Los Angeles this week. He played in only six games this season due to two injuries, but his presence means Herbert will have more healthy targets than he has had for most of the season. Pittman's speed could be a serious asset in the game plan of offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, who will leave to become UNLV's head coach after the Rose Bowl.
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